Abusive client — what would you do?

Ilise Benun on your online marketing planThere were lots of great comments and suggestions in response to this client’s plea for advice — plus I included her response and “hindsight” take on what she should have done (and will do next time). What would you do? Keep adding anything useful so everyone can learn.

Okay, so I’m a small, professional, well-established graphic and web design studio and I’m working on a web site project for a local manufacturing company. This is my third site for them – their first site five years ago, their sister company’s site two years ago, and now an update to the first site. They obviously like my work and for the most part, I know their personalities and ways of working.

So I thought…

This project has become a dragged out, almost full circle, tweak-fest. And we’re still on the home page design! My mistake from the beginning was to allow more than three people on their committee (I did so because we’ve worked together so much). The second problem is a problematic member of their committee who wasn’t part of our previous projects. He is blatantly opinionated, usually off base with his design and marketing ideas, and for the most part is the cause of the project delay.

Yesterday’s meeting was the ultimate when he not only crudely criticized the project, but also criticized the work in my portfolio and me personally. I immediately and politely called him out on this and then got right back to the meeting. The rest of the committee later emailed apologies for his behavior (although they did nothing to stop it at the time). Good thing designers have a thick skin, yes?

I responded to the committee’s apology with a very light-hearted “Don’t worry about it, this is part of the business” email. I did not address our wayward project management. I chose not to because I wanted to maintain a dignified position regarding the apology and not in any way lower myself to what might appear to be a counter-attack. Yet, the project management is something that definitely needs to be addressed. As a professional, I’m not doing my job if I allow things to continue as is.

My question is this (for directors and project managers especially): What should I do? Email the decision-maker? Talk to the whole committee? I’m open to all opinions.

24 thoughts on “Abusive client — what would you do?

  1. Dave

    I would email them all and discuss having one point of contact for further development. also finish off there project. The next project they want to hire you for you add a pain in the ass fee. lol

  2. amy

    I would let them know that the project is going beyond the initial timeframe and that if it’s not wrapped up by a certain date, there will be additional charges. Most clients would rather not pay the extra charges and make a decision quite quickly.

  3. Maria Cavallini

    In light of what occurred with the PITA and the committee’s apology, I would ask they appoint one, maybe two, points of contact (one to fill in when the other is called away). I would think they would not subject you to the PITA again.

  4. Trish

    I’m not sure I would use e-mail at the start of this sensitive discussion. E-mails can be ignored and easily misinterpreted. I would pick the person that seems to be the leader of the group (the highest ranking member) that you are dealing with and either call them or set up a one-on-one meeting with them. After expressing your concerns, plan how to move forward with that person as your point of contact. Then once all is finalized decide if you or your contact will send out an e-mail to all members of the committee explaining how the project will move forward. Then draft a response e-mail that you can use if any members of the committee try to circumvent the system you’ve created.

  5. Suzanne

    Hmmm. I definitely would not email. A little face-to-face TLC may be in order. Ideally I’d call each committee member and have a one-on-one lunch or glass of wine with each of them – separately. Get them relaxed. Starting with the person I have the closest relationship. A lot of the times, the committee member causing the most problems and who is the most vocal, ironically needs some direction and hand-holding. Or – worst case – they have some other issue that could be revealed after you peel back the hardened layer. You may unveil something you don’t want. But with one bad apple being outnumbered, the customer relationship should turn out OK – assuming all committee members have equal power. If this was a “good” client, it may be worth trying.

  6. Karen

    I try to manage difficult people with project timelines. It is rare when a client has the luxury of infinite revisions, because usually there is a deadline to be met and a budget to operate within. When you submit a proposal, add a production schedule timeline. The work should be complete within that timeline or renegotiated and agreed by both parties. If this is one of those rare instances where you are working with no definite deadline and billing by the hour, then assert the fact that you are a busy professional whose time is in demand, and your projects need to be time-bound.

    A project timeline outlines a “norm” for your clients to follow. The other committee members will surely appreciate your leadership in keeping the project moving forward!

    You can offer a production schedule mid-project to assert that you want to guide the project to completion. Each meeting thereafter should have a milestone goal to accomplish.

    One way to manage abusive opinionated clients in meetings is to always offer them a choice. If you present only one option, they will usually will reject it. If you have two options, they are empowered to assert their opinion over one or the other. The trick is to always offer two strong approaches that both work so there are no “wrong” answers!

    Best of luck to you!

  7. Paula

    I’m actually more interested in how the designer “immediately and politely” called him out and how she moved the discussion forward. This sort of thing happens to all of us, and it can be frustrating and flustering. Can the designer follow up on this discussion thread?

  8. Sergio

    One of the biggest challenges with clients (internal and external) like this is maintaining the ability to keep a cool head as you interact with them. It sounds like you are managing this so, as desperate as the situation may seem at times, you are more than half way to the solution. My experience in the past has been that people like this are basing their assumptions on personal preference. Ask the difficult client what he/she is basing their opinions on.
    I would face his/her challenges with as much concrete data as possible. There are some hard basic facts that have developed about user behavior on the Web over the years. Use it in your favor. There are also specific facts about people’s reaction to color that can be used. Also, you probably know who the site is targeted to, use facts about that target audience to get your points across.
    One last piece of psychobabble, this person’s behavior probably have more to do with personal issues than they do with the project. They may have an issue with self esteem and feeling they want to be heard and are trying to use the project as a soap box to stand on. If at all possible try to mold things in a way where they feel (which may not necessarily be the case) their ideas are being heard and considered. Maybe a small win for them will help quite them down.
    Hope that helps.

  9. Jim Lee

    Something similar happened to me a few years back. Abusive arse in a committee. I asked someone who owes me a favor to run him over with a car. He survived unfortunately, but it solved my problem and we finished the project before he recovered. I do not live in a developed country so this may not be applicable to your situation.

  10. Meredith Gossland

    This is why there are contracts and the endless policy pages that customers must sign (even though they are rarely read). The best way to handle difficult and emotional problems is to have it covered in a contract. When you first accept a job …have a contract. It covers, cost, time, number of redos, schedule, point of contact, payment schedules and a list of overrun fees. These contracts once signed put the responsibility not just on you but on the client as well. No emotional interplay.

  11. Jon

    I would have a sit-down with whoever is actually in charge of this project and work through this issue. Specifically, I would take them to lunch and hash it out over something glutamate-heavy like Chinese or Steaks or something. Glutamate makes people happy and mentally pliable. 😉

    If the offending committee member cannot behave professionally, they need to be removed from the committee, not because they hurt your feelings, or attacked you personally, or your work, or you don’t want to work with them; but because they are a roadblock to the project’s success and represent a risk of its failure.

    If the project has gone beyond its original timeline (or violated the contract in any other way, really), you and the decision maker need to make a plan to finish the project based on where you are now, and amend the contract to reflect this new plan. You may want to consider including penalties for causing delays in the project, or having them pay you a set rate per period of time that you are engaged.

    Then, every time Mr. Jerkface causes delays, it costs his boss money, and they makes it their problem, and specifically, effects Mr. Jerkface’s value to the organization as a whole. If I was Mr. Jerkface’s boss and his behavior was costing me thousands of dollars every time he shot his mouth off, I would be having a come-to-Jesus meeting with Mr. Jerkface, or I would be removing him from that committee. Fast.

    If it can’t be resolved, you need to politely explain that the Opportunity Cost of this contract is too high, and terminate it.

    Clients forget that working on their project prevents you from working on other projects…which prevents you from getting paid, covering your overhead, and keeping the doors open…especially if you’re getting paid at the end of a contract.

    Why would you choose to continue work on a project that is wasting your time playing what-if, when you could be working on projects that MAKE YOU MONEY?

    Also – Designers need thick skins because we face constant failure, NOT because it’s part of our business to be verbally abused by assholes. If it happens again, politely end the meeting and terminate the contract. Specifically note in the termination that you are ending the relationship because Mr. Jerkface was verbally abusive, crude, and attacked you personally.

    There must be consequences.

  12. Jocelyn

    I often work for clients that consist of committees…and as we (and the author) know, the more people on the committee, the harder it is to move forward. I hope that, somewhere, you have something of a written contract or agreement (even if it’s an email stating how much work you’re willing to do for a certain amount of money). I agree with the person who stated above that you should tell the client that they have almost maxed out their time and additional work that is needed will require additional charges. State that, since they are an established client with good history (emphasis on HISTORY. ha) then you wish to keep these additional charges as low as possible (which is, of course, in their best interest). Then state than in order to keep these charges low, you recommend having one contact person who will gather notes from the committee and present them in a specific manner saying what they want to have done to the project.

    Money talks. Make it talk to them like you want to save them money, when in reality you just want to save yourself!

    Good luck!

  13. Ilise Benun Post author

    My client is very grateful for all the feedback and passed along this response:

    “In hindsight here’s how I could have better handled this situation:

    1. I have a guideline that I present to new clients with suggestions for forming project committees most guaranteed to succeed. This company and I have worked together a long time, and I’m guessing I developed this guideline in the years since our initial meeting. Looking back, I can see where the company and I have become like an old married couple–we’ve gradually slipped into poor communication and relaxed meetings. We need to get back to the best behavior that comes with dating days.

    2. In the very first meeting for this project, I detected the new guy would be a problem. Right then and there I should have spoken privately with the decision-maker and suggest we downsize our committee. I would have also stressed the need for positive attitudes and constructive communication for greatest success. I could have done this without singling anyone out.

    3. As meetings progressed, it became apparent the guy was a lot of hot air and didn’t know what he was talking about. No one else on the committee paid him much attention so I didn’t either. I now feel his bad attitude may have subtly eroded others’ thinking and perhaps that’s why they’re having problems deciding on a clear direction.

    Attitudes, whether good or bad, are very contagious. If the guy had to be at the meetings and if the decision-maker chose not to respond to him, I should have taken a stronger leadership role in maintaining a positive environment. Or I should have called the decision-maker and voiced my concerns. Or, as someone suggested, I should have taken the decision-maker out to lunch. This should have been done before it escalated to this point.

    5. Someone asked how I responded to the personal attacks. I must admit I’m pretty slow on the uptake. When his criticism shifted from the project, to my portfolio and then to me, I quietly but firmly said something like, “Such comments are not necessary nor are they relative to our project.” I took a pause and then moved on to what I had been saying before he interrupted me. In retrospect, I feel I should have said more to demand the respect any professional deserves.

    All in all, it’s not my feelings that have been hurt. The issue is that this person has created a negative environment that has delayed our project, if not hindered its overall success. (Don’t worry, yes, their costs have increased accordingly – including a PIA fee!)

    I must say, the reason I can easily separate my personal feelings from what I recognize as the true problem is because what I’ve learned from Ilise. Her book “Stop Pushing Me Around” is particularly applicable in this situation. Creatives, generally speaking, do not have the confidence of advertising guru George Lois, nor have we studied management and human relations. It’s something we have to learn and work at. Ilise has helped me a lot with this – thanks Ilise!”

  14. Ron

    It’s one thing to criticize your design, NO project/client is worth being personally abused over. Just because you are being paid for services rendered does not give anyone free license to cross the line like that. If he is treating you like this – imagine how he treats his co workers, underlings, wife and kids! Be proud enough of your design skills that you take the attitude of “they don’t deserve my talent!”. Designers give so much of our talent away these days just to keep working – but life is too short to deal with crap like that over a friggin website. Screw em, let them get the receptionist’s sister’s kid to do it!

    Speaking to his coworkers about him might be fruitless – if they were going to stop him they’d have done it right there in the meeting.

    It is easy for me to suggest you walk away from a paying client since it is not my money, but don’t let anyone bully you…all the best!

  15. Andy Thomson

    Some years ago I had a client who’s management style was very like your errant committee member. It became clear he was pushing for a reaction and in one meeting I finally gave it to him. But rather than descend to his level I explained where we were with the project, the design principles I work to and why the project had been produced the way it had. It was a pretty blunt meeting. BUT, it cleared the air. The client knew how far he could push and respected my reasons for doing things the way I did. We had a much better and more productive relationship after that day.

    My advice – don’t be afraid to stand your ground. Clients hire us designers to do good professional work. Sometimes they push your creativity and sometimes they just won’t stop tinkering. Learn to tell the difference, as one will make you better and the other will end up with neither you or the client satisfied with the end result.

    Arrange a face to face private meeting with your difficult committee member and work out the problem. You may find he becomes your biggest ally.

  16. meredith

    Still no contract? Guess what…this will happen again. No matter how many books you read, lessons you have learned or advice you appreciate, nothing works like a clear easy to understand (short and to the point) contract. A point of contact arrangement in your contract and this guy would never have been in the meeting in the first place.

  17. Ivan Solero

    My suggestion would be…
    1. Get paid for any work up to this point.
    2. Set ground rules for working as a committee.
    3. Fire the bad apple from the committee
    4. If #3 does not work then give a deadline and if that does work out fire the client.

    The bottom line is your value and craft needs to be respected for what you are doing. If you cannot control what your clients are doing then you are losing control of your craft. It’s a lose lose situation and you do not want to develop a reputation as a pushover.

    Plus sometimes clients need to be fired!

  18. Mau

    Anything you want to discuss do it face-to-face and then send a written “contact report” to them.

    Ask for a contact point and avoid, at leat momentarily, any comment about over-charging…

    Stand tall!!!

  19. Richard Hanson

    There was a presentation given once by Saul Bass to a client of mine. Mr. Bass laid out all of the boards (yes, boards!) in front of the, rather large group of people that made up the committee. He was about fifteen minutes into his presentation when the most outspoken member of the committee (there’s always one) began suggesting tweeks to the design that, in his tiny mind, would improve it to his liking.
    Mr. Bass didn’t say one more word. He simply instructed his people to pack up all the material, as he closed his file and slipped it into his folio. Needless to say, the committee and its chairman were taken aback by his actions. The chairman asked him what he was doing. Mr. Bass looked him in the eye and simply said, “apparently you and this committee have far more expertise in corporate identity and graphics than I do. Since you don’t need me any longer, I am leaving. My bill,in full, will be in the mail tomorrow.” At which point the chairman apologized, dismissed the know-it-all, and promised that nothing more would be said if he would agree to stay and finish the presentation. It was unanimously accepted!
    Sometimes you just have to call it. You may lose the client, but you’ll keep your self-respect. And, who knows…you might even become a legend!

  20. sophie

    The writer never said there was no contract. Of course, a contract is imperative. But even the best of them doesn’t insure the client will provide a productive committee. What a contract can do is make a statement, as you mentioned, that should the project extend beyond its original scope, additional fees will be applied. The writer mentioned this in the followup comments.

  21. Trish Knuj

    I came up with a solution which has worked beautifully for me. If I’ve experienced (or suspect) the client is seriously high-maintainence, I incorporated a significant “nuisance fee” into the bid I provide to them. Then, if they choose to move forward, at least the extra money will pay for a large bottle of Tums.

  22. Justin Grice

    Everyone has had the problem client. I have now put a services agreement on my website, and reference it if I have trouble moving a project along. You, of course, have learned though next time to just set up the decision making process a bit differently. Too many cooks in the kitchen.